From “Dialectic of Counter-Enlightenment,” an essay from the collection Splinters in Your Eye, which will be published this month by Verso.
On July 22, 2011, a neofascist Norwegian terrorist named Anders Breivik set off a car bomb in Oslo that killed eight people, and then traveled to a socialist youth camp on the island of Utøya, where he ruthlessly gunned down sixty-nine more. That morning he had published a fifteen-hundred-page manifesto, titled “2083: A European Declaration of Independence,” which he had prepared well before his horrific acts. The document, in addition to parroting predictable, racist rants against Muslims and immigrants, offering muddled defenses of “Christian civilization,” and repeating a few arguments from the Unabomber’s screed against modern technology, recycled charges made by the “alt-right” against the Frankfurt School, the contingent of intellectuals and academics that coalesced around the University of Frankfurt Institute for Social Research in the early twentieth century. The group, which included Theodor Adorno and Max Horkheimer, practiced what it termed critical theory, a mode of Marxist critique that, in Horkheimer’s words, aimed to emancipate people and create “a world which satisfies the needs and powers of men.” Today, critical theory is viewed by some on the right as the font of contemporary “politically correct” culture. Much to my chagrin, Breivik urged his audience to turn to my book The Dialectical Imagination for information about the Frankfurt School, warning that it was written by a left-wing sympathizer.
The conspiracy theory is numbingly simplistic: all the ills of modern American culture—feminism, affirmative action, sexual liberation, gay rights, secular education, environmentalism—can be attributed to the insidious influence of the Institute for Social Research members who came to America in the 1930s. Here is a list of things the School supposedly recommended that appears on many alt-right websites:
1. The creation of racism offenses
2. Continual change to create confusion
3. The teaching of sex and homosexuality to children
4. The undermining of schools’ and teachers’ authority
5. Huge immigration to destroy identity
6. The promotion of excessive drinking
7. Emptying of churches
8. An unreliable legal system with bias against victims of crime
9. Dependency on the state or state benefits
10. Control and dumbing down of media
11. Encouraging the breakdown of the family
The ultimate goal of “cultural Marxism,” in their telling, is more than a kind of thought control that denies alternative positions under the guise of restricting hate speech. It is the subversion of Western civilization itself.
The Frankfurt School conspiracy has become increasingly potent in the age of Donald Trump. In addition to cropping up in a flood of new videos made by an international cast of conspiracy theorists who all repeat the same clichéd talking points, it has appeared in truly unusual contexts, including in discussions about the choice of a black hero for the latest Star Wars episode and in debates about the 2016 mass shooting in an Orlando nightclub.
The Frankfurt School theory has also surfaced in the writings of several influential figures in contemporary American politics. Among the most powerful was the journalist Andrew Breitbart, who launched the radical right-wing news service bearing his name. Shortly before he died in 2012, Breitbart published a best-selling book titled Righteous Indignation: Excuse Me While I Save the World, which included a chapter on the Frankfurt School. And, bizarrely, one of the most outspoken purveyors of white-supremacist racism in America today, Richard Spencer, wrote his master’s thesis at the University of Chicago on Adorno. (In it, he claimed that Adorno was afraid to admit how much he admired Wagner’s music because the composer was an anti-Semite loved by the Nazis.) In May 2017, shortly before the deadly white-supremacist rally in Charlottesville, Virginia, an aide in the strategic planning office of the National Security Council named Rich Higgins wrote a memo called “POTUS and Political Warfare,” which blamed widespread opposition to the president on the Frankfurt School.
There’s no doubt that Trump has been in close enough contact with the Frankfurt School conspiracy theory to have been infected. In the spring of 2016, while running for president, he met with the paleoconservative author William Lind. In a picture taken at the meeting, they hold copies of Lind’s 2009 book, The Next Conservatism. It contains a lengthy account of the Frankfurt School’s alleged responsibility for “cultural Marxism” and its effects.
It is, frankly, difficult to know what to make of all of this—and even harder to imagine a way to counter it. But if there is one positive outcome, it is that, in vilifying the Frankfurt School, those on the alt-right have discerned a real threat posed by the cultural transformations they cannot abide. But the threat is not to some phantasm called “Western civilization,” whose most valuable achievements they themselves routinely betray. It is rather to their own counter-Enlightenment worldview and the dangerous politics it has spawned in our climate of heightened fear and despair.
When attempting to address this counter-Enlightenment movement, it is useful to consider the Frankfurt School’s own ambiguous analysis of “the authoritarian personality,” which thinkers on the left have revived in response to the populist onslaught against liberal globalization in the past decade. This analysis was perhaps most prominently deployed in a piece on The New Yorker website by Alex Ross, published just after the 2016 presidential election, with the headline the frankfurt school knew trump was coming, which contended that “with the election of Donald Trump, the latent threat of American authoritarianism is on the verge of being realized.”
Although consistent with Adorno’s deeply pessimistic prognosis, such a view has a cost. As in the case of the stigmatization of some of Trump’s supporters as “deplorables” by Hillary Clinton in 2016, the characterization of right-wing populists as authoritarian personalities can foreclose treating them as anything but objects of contempt, with little hope of rescue short of the radical restructuring of society as a whole.
It is not merely being labeled as authoritarian personalities that prevents the demonizers of the Frankfurt School from seeing the light. Still, there may well be a good many whose devotion to the alt-right is less certain and whose motives are vague. In those cases, it would be counterproductive to pathologize their politics too quickly or to place them in theoretical categories that rob them of the ability to alter their views or behavior. Empathizing with their problems and hearing their grievances may be a more constructive way to address our increasing polarization. There is, after all, nothing that hardens prejudices more effectively than calling those who hold them passive dupes.
It is, of course, naïve to hope that the Anders Breiviks of the world would be amenable to voluntary transformation, no matter how mindful we are of the need to respect their dignity and take their ideas seriously. We lack the tools, alas, to reform those souls in the grip of what can justifiably be called radical evil. But when considering those whose personalities might be too glibly dismissed as “authoritarian,” it is necessary to acknowledge that the counter-Enlightenment must be grasped dialectically. It has to be understood as more than a one-dimensional negation of all that calls itself progressive. It too requires the application of a critical theory that knows how to ask the right questions.